Breakthrough at the United Nations: hopes grow for the high seas

08 June 2011 | News story

Today, World Oceans Day, IUCN is celebrating a major breakthrough in global efforts to conserve the high seas.

Last week at the United Nations, countries took the first, essential steps towards closing the huge gaps which exist in international law which leave the high seas—those areas beyond national jurisdiction—so poorly protected.

The high seas cover nearly 50% of our planet and 64% of the ocean. They are the largest area of unprotected wilderness. Since 2003, IUCN has played a key role in fostering international action to safeguard this blue heart of the planet, just as it supports efforts at the national level to conserve coastal and marine biodiversity within national waters.

International agreements are critical in managing communal global resources such as the high seas. A UN working group that focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity agreed to establish a UN-based "process" which could lead to a new multilateral agreement under the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

Though much complex work lies ahead, it is through such a process that a legal framework can be established that effectively addresses the need to conserve and sustainably manage high seas marine biodiversity and to fairly share the benefits arising from its marine genetic resources.

“This truly was an unexpected and exciting breakthrough,” says Kristina M. Gjerde, IUCN’s High Seas Policy Advisor. “We were hoping to get this sort of commitment at the Rio+20 conference next year, not at this meeting. But governments were fired up, and willing to compromise on some key issues.”

In particular, the UN recommendations, if they are adopted by the UN General Assembly later this year, can establish a platform to develop new rules for designating marine protected areas and for assessing the impacts of activities that may harm marine life beyond national jurisdiction—two essential elements for sustaining ocean life. They will also provide a platform for building capacity and transferring technologies between countries.

“A key element of last Friday’s decision is that it recognizes, for the first time, the need to share the benefits of marine genetic resources fairly and with particular concern for the needs of developing countries, which often lack the capacity to explore and exploit these resources,” explains Gjerde.

Marine genetic resources can provide the ingredients for life-saving drugs, new types of industrial materials, DNA fingerprinting, and many other benefits. Failure to treat these resources equitably in the past has stalled attempts to get international agreement for high seas conservation and reform.

“We still have a long way to go,” says Gjerde, “we still need to work with governments and stakeholders to quickly develop new rules, and to better implement existing commitments. Scientific, conservation and environmental organizations from around the world are now joining forces to help make this happen.”

For more information contact:

Kristina M. GjerdeIUCN’s High Seas Policy Advisor, kgjerde@eip.com.pl